Rewriting the rules of British-US diplomacy

Moral teacher: The leaders as Socrates and Alcibiades by The Day with apologies to Marcello Bacciarelli, 1776 – 77.

Is it time to ditch the term “special relationship”? As Boris Johnson and Joe Biden meet for the first time today, the nature of the UK’s dealings with the US could change dramatically.

The poker game was going badly for Winston Churchill. After little more than an hour’s play with President Truman and his entourage, he had lost several hundred dollars. Grumpily, he got up to go to the toilet. As soon as he had left the room, Truman turned to his companions and gave them an order: “This man is the saviour of the free world. You lose to him.”

This story is told of a meeting between the two politicians in 1946. To some, it epitomises what the relationship between Britain and America should be: one based on mutual respect and consideration.

The game took place on a train to Fulton, Missouri. Churchill was no longer Britain’s prime minister, having lost the 1945 general election to Labour. But the speech he was about to give at a small university would pass into history. In it, he spoke of an “iron curtain” going down across Europe, dividing the west from the Communist-controlled east.

“Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organisation will be gained without… the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples,” he said. “This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.”

This should, he explained, be based on “the growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society” – and military cooperation.

Since then, the phrase “special relationship” has been invoked by many British prime ministers and US presidents – though the Commonwealth is no longer seen to be part of it. Particular emphasis was put on it between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and George Bush and Tony Blair. Joe Biden has said that he sees his visit to Britain for the G7 summit as a chance to affirm it.

But critics have long argued that the relationship is too one-sided, with Britain simply doing America’s bidding and adding a veneer of international approval for US exploits overseas. And it emerged this week that Boris Johnson dislikes the phrase “special relationship” because it makes Britain appear “needy and week”. However, according to a Downing Street spokesman, “that in no way negates the importance in which we regard our relationship with the US, our closest ally".

It would be ironic if Johnson, who was born in America and idolises Churchill, became the person responsible for killing off the phrase. But he is not alone in questioning it.

Writing in The Independent, Sean O’Grady describes it as “one of the most vexed and least useful expressions in the British political vocabulary”. Because of the decline in Britain’s standing since World War Two, he argues, the idea is of little interest to the US.

In the Daily Mail, Sir Christopher Meyer reveals that he banned the phrase when he was Britain’s ambassador to Washington. To the Americans, he says, it was “a stick with which to beat us in negotiation”: if he refused their demands, they would accuse him of betraying it.

Is it time to ditch the term “special relationship”?

Transatlantic notion

Some say, yes. In 1946 it had real meaning: Britain and America had been close allies in World War Two, and both were deeply anxious about the rise of Russia. Britain was the dominant European power, and still had substantial colonies, so America considered it an ideal partner. Since then, however, Britain has lost power and influence. US governments see the UK as just another country.

Others say no. They argue that Churchill made an important point when he talked of “English-speaking peoples”. Although America’s population is made up of many different nationalities, and Spanish is also widely spoken there, it remains culturally closer to Britain than anywhere else. That is why the countries’ leaders have often had a close rapport, and will continue to do so.

You Decide

  1. Boris Johnson had dual British and US citizenship until 2016. Is it possible to feel loyalty to more than one country?
  2. Which other pairs of countries might be seen as having a special relationship?


  1. Divide into teams, each representing one of the nations at the G7 summit. Choose three key global issues and hold your own summit to discuss them.
  2. In pairs, write a one-act play about a card game involving politicians.

Some People Say...

“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of the orator.”

Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), British politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the Carbis Bay Hotel is an odd venue for the G7 summit. It is not included in Britain’s Good Hotel Guide, whose editor suggests that Johnson has decided to inflict “a cruel and unusual punishment” on his counterparts by choosing it. It does, however, have a large beach on which the leaders can stroll if the Cornish wind is not blowing too hard. With 6,500 police on duty, and 4,000 rooms booked for them, around 1,000 are having to sleep on an Estonian cruise ship.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how Brexit has affected the US-UK relationship. America did not want Britain to leave the EU because it saw it as a useful partner within Europe; France or Germany could now take over that role. Joe Biden is particularly anxious that Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement should be honoured, and might well side with the EU against Britain in the dispute over imports to Northern Ireland. Since Britain now badly needs more trade with the US, it is in a weak position.

Word Watch

President Truman
Harry Truman served as president from 1945 until 1953. He was a passionate poker player.
The people surrounding him.
Prime minister
Churchill was re-elected in 1951 and remained in office until 1955.
Small university
Churchill had been invited to Westminster University to receive an honorary degree.
Iron curtain
The term came to be used as a phrase to describe the political boundary dividing Europe until the end of the Cold War in 1991.
World organisation
The United Nations was founded at the end of the previous year.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher
Graffiti in the 1980s accused Thatcher of being “Reagan’s poodle”.
George Bush and Tony Blair
Some suggest Blair was persuaded to support the Iraq War because he was dazzled by Bush’s friendship.
G7 summit
A meeting between the leaders of seven of the world’s major industrialised nations.
Deceptive appearance.


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